Published on March 8th, 2018 | by Anindya Dutta2
CS Flashback: The genius of Jack Hobbs, the oldest centurion in Test cricket
No one ever taught him that a bat must come down in a straight line. No one ever told him that hitting a late out-swinger on the off stump through mid-wicket was not what good batsmen did. No one told him he needed to be an artist to score runs. No one needed to. 61,760 runs, 199 centuries, and a first class career spanning 29-years from 1905 to 1934 is an adequate testimony to the genius and the longevity of Jack Hobbs.
Early life and Career
Jack Hobbs was born in 1882 very close to Jesus College Cambridge, into a family connected with cricket, but not in the way WG Grace or any of the ‘Gentlemen’ cricketers of the age were. Hobbs’ father was a groundsman and an umpire, doing honest, underpaid work. Hobbs played his early cricket much as many of us did, with a tennis ball, a cricket stump for a bat and a tennis post for a wicket on a gravel pitch, showing no great technical prowess or signs of being a prodigy. He scored his first hundred when he was 18, made his first class debut when he was 23.
Hobbs remembered all his life a piece of advice which his father gave him the only time the pair practised together, on Jesus College Close. Jack, facing spin bowling from his father, was inclined to stand clear of his stumps. “Don’t draw away,” his father told him. “Standing up to the wicket is all important. If you draw away, you cannot play with a straight bat and the movement may cause you to be bowled off your pads.”
When his father passed away, young Jack played at his benefit match and was brought to the notice of Tom Hayward who Hobbs had hero-worshipped from afar. Hayward was a legend of the time, the second man after WG Grace to score 100 first class hundreds, piling up 43,551 runs in first class cricket, and doing so as a professional, a remarkable feat at a time when professionals were supposed to bowl while the Amateurs wielded the willow. Hayward gave Jack hope that he too could do the unimagined, and be a successful professional batsman.
Martin Williamson gives us an insight into what being a professional meant at the time: “Professionals were often treated much as servants would be and were expected to be as deferential to amateurs and committeemen as a butler would be to the master of the house. They had separate hotels when they travelled, separate changing rooms and food at the grounds, referred to by their surnames only, and in most counties could never aspire to captaincy. Even scorecards made a small but marked distinction – amateurs were given full initials, professionals surname only.”
Nonetheless, Haywards’ success meant Hobbs had a role model to follow in his aspirations to play for Surrey. In 1902, Hobbs obtained his first post as a professional – second coach and second umpire to Bedford Grammar School, and in the August of that year, he helped Royston, receiving a fee of half a guinea for each appearance. In April 1903, Hobbs went to Surrey. Immediately they recognised his budding talent and engaged him. In his second qualifying year, 1904, he scored 195 in brilliant style against Hertfordshire. In 1905 he became a first class cricketer.
His first match was against the ‘Gentlemen of England’ led by WG Grace. Hobbs scored 88 in the second innings. Observing the unshaven youth bat from his position at point, Grace was to remark: “He’s goin’ to be a good’un.” The remark would prove prophetic and indeed turn out to be a huge understatement.
First class and Test career
Jack Hobbs was destined to have a remarkable career. In fact, it was a career of two halves that would see what appeared to be two different batsmen at the crease.
From the time Hobbs made his debut in 1908 against Australia at Melbourne until the beginning of the First World War, his game was not very different from Victor Trumper’s. It was as his Wisden obituary would describe: “quick to the attack on springing feet, strokes all over the field, killing but never brutal, all executed at the wrists, after the preliminary getting together of the general muscular motive power.”
Where all his colleagues were struggling to read what appeared to be witchcraft of the most cunning kind delivered from the back of the hand by the day’s leading leg break bowlers, the googly appeared to hold no mysteries for Jack Hobbs. On the 1909-10 tour of South Africa where the Englishmen faced matting wickets and a quartet of leggies, Hobbs scored 539 runs at an average of 67.37. The next highest average was 33.77.
This was to be the pattern over the course of his career. As Wisden said: “On all kinds of pitches, hard and dry, in this country [England] or in Australia, on sticky pitches here and anywhere else, even on the gluepot of Melbourne, on the matting of South Africa, against pace, spin, swing, and every conceivable device of bowlers, Hobbs reigned supreme.”
In 1919, when Hobbs returned to cricket after a stint with the RFC as an air mechanic during the War, his game had changed. Impetuousness had given way to serenity. At the age of 37, Hobbs was beginning a new phase of his career.
Wisden describes this phase of his career thus: “The regal control, the ripeness and readiness, the twiddle of the bat before he bent slightly to face the attack, the beautifully timed push to the off to open his score — the push was not hurried, did not send the ball too quickly to the fieldsman, so that Hobbs could walk his first run.”
Runs and centuries came as a matter of course. Hobbs scored 2,440 runs after he turned forty, at an astonishing 58.09. Between his 43rd and 46th birthday, he scored 11,000 runs. He could have scored many more, but very often he would throw away his wicket after getting to his hundred so that others could have a go. His average remained above 60 throughout the period. By this time he had earned the sobriquet of ‘The Master’. He maintained that his best runs were scored before the War, and when reminded that most of his runs were scored after 1919, he remarked: “Maybe, but they were nearly all made off the back foot.”
By the time Jack Hobbs laid down his bat, he had played 61 Test matches scoring 5410 runs at an average of 56.94. His first class tally of 61,760 runs scored at an average of nearly 51 is almost mind numbing when one remembers that combining all three formats of the game, in domestic and international cricket, Sachin Tendulkar’s career runs totaled 50,192.
Partnering Herbert Sutcliffe, Hobbs formed perhaps the most destructive and certainly the most effective opening pair in the history of Test cricket. From 38 partnerships Hobbs and Sutcliffe put up 3,249 runs at 87.81. Their tally of 15 century stands is next to only 16 shared by Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, who averaged 47.31 per stand — almost half of Hobbs and Sutcliffe. Greenidge and Haynes were also the second pair to put up 250-run stands twice — almost six decades after Hobbs and Sutcliffe.
Sutcliffe’s tribute to Hobbs on his demise said it all: “I was his partner on many occasions on extremely bad wickets, and I can say this without any doubt whatever that he was the most brilliant exponent of all time, and quite the best batsman of my generation on all types of wickets. On good wickets I do believe that pride of place should be given to Sir Don Bradman.”
The Age defying knock at Melbourne
But before Jack Hobbs rode into the sunset, he had one special innings to play. It was the Australian summer of 1928-29 and Percy Chapman’s Englishmen had turned the heat up on the Aussies. SJ Southerton was to write in the Wisden about the series: “England were stronger in batting, more reliable and consistent in bowling and very definitely superior in fielding.”
It was the series when two of the most talented Australian batsmen of their time would make their debuts. Don Bradman would go on to become the greatest batsmen who ever played Test cricket, surpassing Hobbs himself, while Archie Jackson would display almost unearthly talent and explode into the cricketing world, only to pass away soon after, a brilliant cricketer taken away in his prime by tuberculosis.
When the teams came to Melbourne for the final test match of the series, slated to be timeless as was the norm of the times, England led the series 4-0. Wally Hammond, playing his maiden Ashes series had been the star of the series scoring 905 runs at 113.12. In the side were current and future stars like Hobbs, Douglas Jardine, Maurice Tate, Les Ames and Harold Larwood, all of whom had contributed to the result thus far.
Percy Chapman won the toss, and unsurprisingly, given the success his batsmen had had in the series, chose to bat.
Jack Hobbs and Douglas Jardine opened the innings with Sutcliffe sitting out this Test. Jardine was the first to go with the English score at 64. Hammond for once had a disappointing start, scoring only 38, positively pedestrian by his own high standards on the tour. The wickets kept falling at intervals at the other end, but holding up the fort, as he had done for over two decades at the opening slot, was Jack Hobbs.
The Australian opening bowlers Wall and Hornibrook who were troubling his colleagues, made no impression on Hobbs. He calmly bisected the offside field for effortless fours. Clarrie Grimmett, at the peak of his powers, with his googly that bemused most, held no terrors for Hobbs who had sorted out the delivery two decades before on the matted wickets of South Africa. Even Alan Kippax was employed to send down his occasional leg spin. Nothing would dislodge Jack Hobbs.
Finally, the Australian captain, Jack Ryder brought himself on to bowl his fast-medium deliveries. As the day was drawing to a close, Ryder managed to bring in a ball that slipped past Hobbs’ bat and hit his back pad. Four hours and forty minutes after he walked in to bat, having faced 301 balls, with eleven hits to the fence in his chanceless 142, Jack Hobbs was out.
Hobbs could not know it then, but at 46 years and 82 days he had just become the oldest cricketer to score a Test century. 90-years later, no one has even come close, and given the multiple formats of the modern game that players are engaged in, it is unlikely careers will be so extended that this record will ever be broken.
England scored 519 and Australia replied with 491 on the back of centuries from Bill Woodfull and Don Bradman. In the second innings, Hobbs was the highest scorer with 65 in a team total of 257. Australia finished with 287 for 5, registering their first victory of the series, bringing some respectability to the series score line, which read 4-1 in favour of England.
A Fitting finale
In 1953, the newly crowned Elizabeth II, Queen of England, ensured that the Jack Hobbs story would have a fairy tale ending. The Honour’s List for 1953 revealed a knighthood for England’s greatest batsman, making Sir John Berry ‘Jack’ Hobbs the first professional cricketer to be knighted for his services to the game.
The social barrier finally removed by royal decree, amateurs and professionals alike, rejoiced. A true gentleman, a professional, had ensured that the ‘Gentleman’s Game’ finally provided a level playing field.
Jack Hobbs passed on in December 1963 at the age of 81.